The National Organization for Women, deeply divided over its future leadership and direction, opened its annual convention today with a display of hoopla and hardball politics.
Facing a difficult reelection challenge, NOW President Judy Goldsmith attempted to defuse criticism of her leadership by announcing a plan to confront opponents of legalized abortion with a "Campaign to Save Women's Lives." The campaign will include a petition drive, lobbying, public rallies and vigils at abortion clinics.
Eleanor Smeal, a former NOW president and one-time Goldsmith ally, promptly denounced the campaign as a political ploy designed to help her rival's candidacy.
The election takes place Saturday night and is expected to be a cliffhanger. Supporters of both candidates were organizing noisy floor demonstrations and lobbying feverishly in the hallways of the Fairmont Hotel here.
Smeal supporters wore cranberry-colored "Ellie" T-shirts and badges that said, "Smeal for a Strong NOW." Goldsmith forces wore buttons that said, "Go for the Gold," and carried placards saying, "NOW Loves Judy."
Smeal, who led NOW from 1977 to 1982, is attempting a political comeback because she believes the nation's largest feminist group has lost members, money and its activist image under Goldsmith's leadership. She also charges that NOW has abandoned the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.
"We are talking about changing the direction of the [women's] movement, this organization," Smeal, 45, declared at a news conference where her supporters chanted, "Raise Hell. Raise Hell."
"One of the things about a movement is you make people uncomfortable," she added.
Goldsmith, who boasts of making NOW "a multi-issue organization," today used the powers of her incumbency to dominate activities. Her keynote speech, for example, followed a collection of television news clips that showed the role she played in helping to influence Walter F. Mondale to select Geraldine A. Ferraro as his running mate in last year's election.
In a videotaped message to the 19th annual NOW convention, Ferraro, who is vacationing in China, praised the the efforts of the organization in the 1984 campaign. "For the first time we were sitting on the inside not the outside," she said.
Goldsmith, 46, considers the Ferraro nomination the high point of her presidency, but Smeal forces charge Goldsmith made NOW "an arm of the Democratic Party."
Goldsmith, who called President Reagan "an enemy of women," attacked the Reagan administration for asking the Supreme Court earlier this week to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court decision that legalized abortion.
"We must drive home the message to Ronald Reagan, to the Supreme Court, to the Catholic hierarchy, to [the Rev.] Jerry Falwell [of the Moral Majority] and to all the antiabortion extremists that to elevate the value of insensate fetal life over that of women is a cynical perversion of compassionate human values," she said.
The abortion issue, Goldsmith said, "is our movement's moment of truth. We must find the strength and stamina to deflate the right wing during its time of greatest influence."
Longtime NOW members said Goldsmith entered the convention with a slight lead, but Smeal supporters said a well attended rally Thursday night and soundings from the 1,100 delegates registered today indicates they are gaining strength.
They also reported that concerns about NOW's finances grew during tumultuous meetings of the NOW executive board.